BOSTON — Standing before a packed room, with tears in their eyes, Maria Teresa Rodriguez and her 16-year-old daughter, Sandy, recounted abuse at the hands of Sandy's stepfather and how terrified they were to seek help.
He hit Maria and then Sandy one night, they said, but as their minds raced, they decided not to call the police. For years, he had warned them that any law enforcement involvement would end in Maria's deportation — a move that domestic violence experts say is a tactic abusers often use to perpetuate the status quo.
While the truth eventually came out, Maria and Sandy stressed last week that their story underlines the need for action, renewing calls for legislation that would prevent local police from inquiring about immigration status. That change, advocates say, would empower domestic violence and sexual assault survivors to contact law enforcement without triggering immigration proceedings that could tear apart their families.
"We want something to be done for the Safe Communities Act to be passed," Sandy said. "We need this to be done as soon as possible because I've seen so many cases where families are broken up because they're trying to defend themselves and trying to get help. Those people that are trying to help you put you even more down instead of picking you up."
Supporters of the legislation rallied before meeting with lawmakers, focusing specifically on how the legislation could protect immigrant survivors and broadcasting personal stories of those most affected.
In addition to banning police from asking about immigration, the legislation (H 3573 / S 1401) would also prevent law enforcement from notifying Immigration and Customs Enforcement when a suspect wanted by the federal authorities is set to be released except for cases in which a criminal sentence is ending.
Advocates say the clear firewall between local departments and federal immigration would ensure that increasingly diverse communities maintain trust in police and feel comfortable calling for help — or cooperating in cases — without worrying that it will lead to deportation, particularly as the Trump administration ramps up enforcement.
"A lot of people pay attention to the border, but you don't have to look just to the border for families to be separated," said state Rep. Liz Miranda, who co-filed the House bill. "We need Massachusetts residents to wake up and understand that separation and fear is being handed out right here in our commonwealth. That's an important thing, because we can't keep patting ourselves on the back for being a liberal state if this is happening in our state."
Miranda, the daughter of immigrants, shared her own personal story, too. She told the room that she was also a survivor of domestic violence and sexual abuse and that her father and brother had both been deported.
About a half-dozen of Miranda's colleagues and members of several immigration advocacy and domestic abuse prevention groups joined her at last week's event.
Maureen Gallagher, policy director of the anti-sexual assault and domestic violence coalition Jane Doe Inc., highlighted the results of a recent national survey that found 76 percent of immigrant domestic violence survivors are hesitant to contact authorities and more than half decide to drop their cases, afraid of drawing ICE attention.
"Their access to justice is blocked when they can't safely contact law enforcement or seek health care or advocacy without the very real possibility of removal or potential separation from their families," Gallagher said. "Those who abuse often exploit victims' immigration status to maintain power and control by reinforcing fears of deportation."
That fear was the case for Zoila Lopez, too. She recalled one instance after her husband assaulted her when she pleaded with him not to take her to the hospital to avoid getting in trouble over their undocumented status.
The abuse continued and Lopez eventually called police, but she told advocates last week that better protections outlined in the Safe Communities Act would have prevented her from waiting so long.
"Give us more support," she said. "That way, all the victims can feel confident and secure and safe to call the police."
The legislation generated significant debate on Beacon Hill last session. The Senate approved its language as part of its annual budget. The House never voted on the measure, and Gov. Charlie Baker threatened a veto.
State Rep. Ruth Balser, who co-filed the bill with Miranda, said she is optimistic about the legislation's chances, noting that personal stories shared Wednesday may sway minds.
"Most bills take time," she told the News Service. "I think for this bill, like all bills, we need to educate. Today, for instance, was part of that education process. I'm not sure that most of my colleagues are aware of the number of people who are afraid to go to police to protect themselves because of the fear of a connection to (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)."
Miranda described the issue as one urgent enough to warrant immediate action.
"It is a life and death situation in many of our communities," she said.